Art, Art & Archives, Exhibitions and Installations, Getty Research Institute, technology

Buck Teeth and All: True Lies in Early Color Printing

Portrait of Edouard Dagoty, Inventor of Color Printing / Carlo Lasinio

Portrait of Édouard Dagoty, Inventor of Color Printing (Portrait d’Édouard Dagoty, inventeur de la gravure en couleurs), Carlo Lasinio (Italian, 1759–1838) after Johann Ernst Heinsius (German, 1740–1812), ca. 1784. Four-color mezzotint, state 1 of 2, 19 1/2 x 16 1/2 in. (49.6 x 41.9 cm). The Getty Research Institute, 2007.PR.87. Partial gift of Dr. Richard A. Simms

While working on the show The Getty Research Institute: Recent Print Acquisitions (in the GRI Gallery until September 2), I had the pleasure of getting to know one Édouard Gautier-D’Agoty.

Every bit the late-18th-century gentleman-artist and rendered in velvety soft pastel tones, Édouard gazes out casually from underneath a black hat, clutching his brushes and a portfolio. His slightly open mouth reveals what a dentist would term a “frontal occlusion” (that’s a severe overbite to the layman). Despite the romantic flutter of his slightly open blouse, the highlighting of his rosy cheeks and clear eyes, and the subtle backlighting that casts a glow around his entire person, Édouard is clearly not idealized. (You can admire him up close in wallpapers from the show we featured earlier this year.)

The print seems to aspire to a realistic depiction honoring the memory of an individual. A related aim was certainly to showcase a particular method of printing especially suited to accurate representation (with implicit ideas of “truthfulness”). Created posthumously by Carlo Lasinio (1759–1838), one of Édouard’s students, the portrait is an early example of color printing using multiple plates, an innovation touted for its ability to realistically render nearly anything. This reputation was only enhanced by the method’s initial use in often gruesomely graphic illustrations of anatomy.

The no-nonsense depiction of Édouard—dirty fingernails, wrinkled doublet, and of course, that overbite—combines with the veristic technique and factual title (included on the print itself) to offer posterity what would seem to be an accurate portrait of the deceased: “Portrait of Édouard Dagoty, inventor of color printing. Born in Paris in 1745, died in Florence the 8th of May 1783.” Credit is given to Johann Ernst Heinsius, who drew the portrait after which the print was made; to Lasinio for executing the plates; and finally to Labrelis, the printer. In most instances printmaking was, and remains, a team sport!

Detail of hands in Portrait of Edouard Dagoty, Inventor of Color Printing / Carlo Lasinio

Realism in printing: Édouard's dirty fingernails

However, notions of the portrait’s benignly informative nature become clouded when we learn that Édouard was in fact not the inventor of color printing. Even more, he was two inventors removed. His father, Jacques Gautier Dagoty (1710—1781), had widely claimed to be the inventor. Yet it was actually Jacques Christophe Le Blon (1667–1741) who, using Newton’s theories of light and the prism as a guide, arrived at the multi-plate method.

The method is at once simple and extremely challenging. The final colored print is created by combining several plates inked with the primary colors (red, yellow, and blue). The mezzotint method was the starting point, as it allowed for a more painterly look. Mezzotint is an intaglio printing method pioneered in England, in which a spiked roller is used to mottle the entirety of a copper plate until it would print entirely black if unaltered. Then, the printmaker smoothes out the parts of the plate he wishes to highlight in the composition. The overall effect is one akin to painting—light and shadows can be rendered more realistically than with the cross-hatching required by engraving, etching, or woodcut. Therefore, mezzotint was the perfect method for achieving color printing’s aspirations to realism and the accurate reproduction of paintings.

Portrait of Édouard Dagoty, Inventor of Color Printing / Carlo Lasinio

Portrait of Édouard Dagoty, Inventor of Color Printing (Portrait d’Édouard Dagoty, inventeur de la gravure en couleurs), Carlo Lasinio after Édouard Gautier-Dagoty, ca. 1783. Color mezzotint, 49.5 x 42 cm). The British Museum, 1899,0516.6. Digital image © The Trustees of the British Museum

Le Blon received privileges in both London and Paris for the exclusive practice of his color mezzotint method. Each plate was engraved with a different part of the composition, and the coordination of the inking and printing of the three or more plates onto one piece of paper required considerable expertise but, when done well, created incredibly realistic-looking coloring. When done poorly, the separate plates could appear unaligned, or the color might be off. In these instances, the image was often “fixed” with hand-coloring, somewhat defeating the original purpose.

For an example of a version in-progress, check out the impression in the collection of the British Museum shown here: it seems to be unfinished (where is the green tone from the blue plate?) and possibly touched up with paint.

Jacques Gautier d’Agoty worked with Le Blon very briefly in Paris and upon the latter’s death applied for his privilege, claiming that by adding a fourth plate (black), he, d’Agoty, had in fact created and perfected true color printing. The privilege was granted, but then revoked after protests by those associated with Le Blon’s studio. Nonetheless, d’Agoty was later re-awarded the privilege.

His five sons took up the family business. The eldest, Jean Baptiste André, painted portraits of high-ranking figures including Madame du Barry, mistress to King Louis XV, and was later appointed court painter to King Louis XVI’s queen, Marie Antoinette. His younger brothers often made color mezzotints after his work.

Édouard, the third son, is widely described as the most capable printmaker of the bunch, and he specialized in recreating Renaissance paintings (some writers have pointed out that he seemed especially drawn to subjects of a licentious nature). He was known to use up to six different plates for his prints. Having run into what are ambiguously described as “difficulties” in his later life, Édouard left Paris for Florence. There, he trained students like Lasinio in the multi-plate color printing method. It is conceivable that Lasinio included the erroneous credit line of “inventor of color printing” in the posthumous portrait because Édouard had advertised his teaching services using this false accreditation. Or was Lasinio the liar? He certainly would have benefitted from being linked to the inventor of the method he so deftly employs.

The portrait is a fitting requiem for several cons: a family notorious for its false claims of invention; a tricky printing method claiming to be truthful yet of course remaining entirely mediated by the artist’s choices; and, in some copies of the print, the claim to be a mechanized color print despite obvious augmentation with gouache or watercolor (at least the GRI copy isn’t a liar on this front—according to one of our conservators, all the color is printed).

Édouard’s portrait illustrates one of the guiding principles behind the GRI’s print collecting: it may not be pretty, but behind that toothy gaze there is immense historical interest and research potential. Above all, the print is a fascinating document within the history of the print as a medium.

The GRI holdings also include books published by Le Blon and Jacques Gautier on color printing (volume 1 and volume 2 here), as well as several letters and bills from Édouard to, of all people, his tailor.

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